Scientists Discover First DNA Evidence of Female Viking Warriors

A recent DNA analysis shows that a skeleton found in a famous Viking grace belonged to a female warrior.

Katheryn Winnick from History's "Vikings"
Katheryn Winnick from History's "Vikings"

The site of Birka, a Viking-era city whose remains lie about 20 miles east of Stockholm, has long been a treasure trove for scholars and archaeologists. Buried here are more than 3,000 Viking graves, all under what was once a central outpost in a complex trading network built during the Early Middle Ages. In the 10th century, for reasons researchers don't fully understand, it was abandoned


Nearly a millennium later, archaeologists unearthed, as one put it, the “ultimate Viking grave.” It contained the remains of a person buried alongside a sword, an axe, a spear, arrows, a knife, and shields, along with two horses, a mare, and a stallion. The skeleton held a board game, which were used then for devising military strategies. This person, by all accounts, had been a military officer. 

Illustration by Evald Hansen based on the original plan of grave Bj 581 by excavator Hjalmar Stolpe

Scholars have long assumed this Viking officer had been male. However, a new paper published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology proposes convincing DNA evidence that this famed Viking skeleton was, in fact, a woman. 

“Written sources mention female warriors occasionally, but this is the first time that we’ve really found convincing archaeological evidence for their existence,” says Neil Price, Professor at Uppsala University’s Department of Archaeology and Ancient History.

SWEDISH NATIONAL HERITAGE BOARD/PUBLIC DOMAIN

The skeleton had fascinated Anna Kjellström, an osteologist at Stockholm University and coauthor of the paper, when she studied it a few years ago for another project, according to The Local. She noticed its slim cheekbones, feminine hips. It seemed female. 

Map showing location of Birka and the grave site

In order to conclusively determine the sex of the warrior, the researchers tested the nuclear DNA of a tooth root and arm bone from the skeleton. The results? Two X chromosomes, zero Y chromosomes. 

“The individual in grave BJ581 is the first confirmed female high-ranking Viking warrior,” wrote lead study author Hedenstierna-Jonson and colleagues. 

Video footage of a recreation of Birka from filmmakers Mikael Agaton and Lars Rengfelt

So, the deceased was clearly female. But why do the researchers think she was a warrior and not, say, the wife of a warrior or simply a woman from high-ranking family? After all, the researchers note that Viking women buried alongside weapons have been discovered before.

It comes down to the board game, which she was clutching in her final resting position.

“The gaming set indicates that she was an officer, someone who worked with tactics and strategy and could lead troops in battle. What we have studied was not a Valkyrie from the sagas but a real life military leader, that happens to have been a woman,” said Hedenstierna-Jonson.

Hedenstierna-Jonson elaborated in an interview with The Local:

“You can’t reach such a high (military) position without having warrior experience, so it’s reasonable to believe that she took part in battles.

It was probably quite unusual (for a woman to be a military leader), but in this case, it probably had more to do with her role in society and the family she was from, and that carrying more importance than her gender.”

The researchers don't believe their findings will revolutionize the way scholars conceptualize Viking military history. However, the paper raises new questions about the exact role of women in Viking society, and casts some doubt on previously unearthed Viking remains that were assumed to be male. 

The paper concludes with a fitting war poem:

Then the high-born lady saw them play the wounding
game,
she resolved on a hard course and flung off her cloak;
she took a naked sword and fought for her kinsmen's lives
she was handy at fighting, wherever she aimed her blows
— The Greenlandic Poem of Atli


‘Designer baby’ book trilogy explores the moral dilemmas humans may soon create

How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.

Surprising Science
  • A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
  • It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
  • While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Keep reading Show less

Octopus-like creatures inhabit Jupiter’s moon, claims space scientist

A leading British space scientist thinks there is life under the ice sheets of Europa.

Jupiter's moon Europa has a huge ocean beneath its sheets of ice.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute
Surprising Science
  • A British scientist named Professor Monica Grady recently came out in support of extraterrestrial life on Europa.
  • Europa, the sixth largest moon in the solar system, may have favorable conditions for life under its miles of ice.
  • The moon is one of Jupiter's 79.
Keep reading Show less

Lair of giant predator worms from 20 million years ago found

Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.

Bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).

Credit: Jenny – Flickr
Surprising Science
  • Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
  • The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
  • The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.
Keep reading Show less

FOSTA-SESTA: Have controversial sex trafficking acts done more harm than good?

The idea behind the law was simple: make it more difficult for online sex traffickers to find victims.

Has FOSTA-SESTA really lived up to it's promise of protecting sex trafficking victims - or has it made them easier to target?

Credit: troyanphoto on Adobe Stock
Politics & Current Affairs
  • SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) and FOSTA (Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) started as two separate bills that were both created with a singular goal: curb online sex trafficking. They were signed into law by former President Trump in 2018.
  • The implementation of this law in America has left an international impact, as websites attempt to protect themselves from liability by closing down the sections of their sites that sex workers use to arrange safe meetings with clientele.
  • While supporters of this bill have framed FOSTA-SESTA as a vital tool that could prevent sex trafficking and allow sex trafficking survivors to sue those websites for facilitating their victimization, many other people are strictly against the bill and hope it will be reversed.
Keep reading Show less
Videos

What is the ‘self’? The 3 layers of your identity.

Answering the question of who you are is not an easy task. Let's unpack what culture, philosophy, and neuroscience have to say.

Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast